A review of The New Age of Catastrophe, Alex Callinicos (Polity, 2022) £18
Alex Callinicos’s The New Age of Catastrophe is a hugely important book. Capitalism depends on divide and rule and is endlessly inventive in that regard. In the same way that the system uses race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality to separate us, it applies this principle of domination through division to how reality is presented. Whether it be falling living standards, ecological chaos, imperialist war or pandemics, the rich want all the ills of capitalist society to be placed in individual pigeonholes in our minds so as to obscure their class’s culpability. Callinicos turns this approach on its head by investigating what he calls a “multidimensional crisis of capitalism”.1
Over the centuries, certain moments have lent themselves to an understanding of systemic interconnections. Although the reciprocal processes between different spheres of our world function at all times, dramatic periods of change shine a brighter light on them. Callinicos’s book could not have been written, say, two decades ago, but it does stand in a fine Marxist tradition of literature on this subject.
One such revealing conjuncture was during the birth of capitalism. At that time, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels pointed out in The Communist Manifesto, “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere”.2
A later manifestation of the periodic dramatic change inherent to capitalism has been generalised crisis. Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness was written in the wake of the First World War, the 1917 Russian Revolution and a worldwide flu pandemic that killed up to 50 million people. It argues that only through an approach that “sees the isolated facts of social life as aspects of the historical process and integrates them in a totality” can “knowledge of the facts hope to become knowledge of reality.’3
A century later, this is the service The New Age of Catastrophe provides for the modern era. It does so by dissecting several specific crises affecting biology, economics, geopolitics, politics and ideology in order to demonstrate their interrelationship. There are more aspects to the cataclysm than these, but Callinicos has selected the key ones. The result is a devastating condemnation of the direction in which the capitalist class is taking us all.
To accomplish such a feat is not easy. Achieving it meant Callinicos had to overcome at least two hurdles. First, analysing each category on its own would lose the essential interconnectedness of what is happening. Second, and conversely, simply describing the interconnections would risk obscuring the specific internal processes and developmental logic of each category. Callinicos accomplishes the necessarily tricky balancing act between these two approaches with panache.
Even while doing this, he faces two further challenges. The first is that there is a risk of describing the outward appearance of different social phenomena (including their interconnections) without considering the underlying structure that creates and drives the various processes beneath them. Callinicos covers both the appearances and this underlying process. The second challenge is that, although he might have rested with “interpreting the world” with all the calamitous implications of such an interpretation, Callinicos is impelled to go further and integrate Marx’s insight, from his Theses on Feuerbach, that “the point is to change it”. What he offers, therefore, is no dry academic analysis.
Callinicos sums up the key issues in the startling early pages of the book:
The future—the one we are all now living—has arrived in a series of sudden jolts: proliferating wildfires, floods and heatwaves, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the far-right seizure of the United States Capitol building, the renewed threat of nuclear war, the cost of living crisis.4
Yet, none of these are treated as separate. They are constituent parts of a general “crisis of civilisation”.5 There are different ways of interpreting what that means. One is articulated by US historian William H McNeill, who sees crisis as intrinsic to the human condition. Gordon Woo, an academic expert on catastrophic risk, ascribes it to fluctuations in complex systems that can become destabilised.6 Callinicos has a different approach, and his answer is more specific than pointing towards the human condition and fluctuations in a complex system. Reality is concrete: “The forms of living that were made possible by the development of industrial capitalism in the early 19th century, and became increasingly generalised in the 20th century, are no longer viable—indeed they are hurtling us towards societal collapse”.7
Armed with this understanding, Callinicos is able to point the way to a solution. He quotes Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet, written in 1915, which, in the midst of the mass imperialist slaughter of the First World War, said the choice was between socialism and barbarism.
In a short review like this it is impossible to delve into extensive detail and do justice to the broader content of The New Age of Catastrophe. You just need to buy, beg, borrow or steal the book. There is a huge amount to be discovered and a wealth of information. Each of the six main chapters combines the meticulous laying out of data with a high level of analytic interpretation. Both aspects deserve careful attention in their own right.
Here we can only deal with the methodology. To encompass something so vast in conception requires careful structuring. It is necessary to avoid a confusing jumble and to instead provide a logical sequence that makes things intelligible to the reader. This is not merely a matter of literary technique; Callinicos also uses structure to present an argument that traces the inner workings of complex phenomena.
His approach is based on the Marxist critique of political economy. This identifies capitalism as “an economic system…constituted by two interrelated antagonisms: the exploitation of wage labour by capital and the competition between rival capitals (whether firms of states).” These antagonisms give rise to a blind and unending process of competitive accumulation that simultaneously drives environmental destruction, the ‘Long Depression’ and growing geopolitical rivalries”.8
If this is the driver, how do the various parts (environment, economics and politics) interrelate? Callinicos quotes Marx’s “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, where he summarised the “guiding principle” of his work:
In the social production of their existence, human beings inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will—namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.9
Informed by this approach, the chapters of Callinicos’s books are therefore laid out in a structure moving from the “economic base to ideologico-political superstructure”.10 After an opening chapter that delineates the historical background, there is a chapter on “The Destruction of Nature”, which covers climate, ecology and the Covid-19 pandemic. “Economic Stagnation” considers the long-term decline in the rate of profit and the deepening, increasingly intractable downswings in the global economy. Moving on to ideology and politics, Callinicos considers imperialism in a chapter entitled “Hegemonic Decline and Geopolitical Antagonism”, which has a particular focus on China-US relations. The penultimate chapter, “Revolt and Reaction”, brings in country-level politics and the rise of the far right, but also begins looking at the alternative to the gathering barbarism. Chapter 6 completes the book and sets out an urgent political strategy.
The New Age of Catastrophe shows the invaluable contribution that Marxist analysis can offer to anyone wishing to comprehend the world we live in, both in terms of human beings’ relationships to nature and to one another. With this firmly established, we can turn to another (less troubling) aspect of the world—that there can be, indeed there always is, debate within Marxism itself.
There can, for instance, be disagreements about what aspects of our analysis need most emphasis. Marx’s “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy describes crises in these terms:
At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production… From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.11
Callinicos’s book tends to emphasise another approach (though the two are not mutually exclusive): “One of the valuable features…of what Louis Althusser called ‘overdetermination’ is that it refuses to deduce important historical events from the abstract dialectic of the forces and relations of production, but rather sees them arising from the contingent conjunction of multiple determinations”.12
Is the dialectical contradiction between the productive forces and relations of production abstract or made irrelevant by “the contingent conjunction of multiple determinations”? Stressing one rather than another is a matter of judgement, and Marx’s writings are certainly not biblical texts that stand above criticism and are valid for all time. However, I would argue that the dynamic between the forces and relations of production can provide practical insights into both the various crises we face and the potential solution.
Given his subject matter is catastrophe, Callinicos’s avoidance of dependence on what we might call the “forces/relations perspective” may arise from the way Marx’s “Preface” has been used to justify a mechanistic, overly optimistic stages theory of history that sees the economic base as dominant in all circumstances. For example, Marx writes: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed… Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve”.13 If this meant the extraction and use of all available fossil fuels must happen before the existing social order could be destroyed, it would be a horrendous prospect. Leon Trotsky later countered mechanistic interpretations of how societies develop in his theory of permanent revolution.
However, Marx allowed for catastrophe—for situations in which the forces of production were strangled by the “fetters” of the existing social relations. Consider the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto, where he discussed scenarios that “ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes”.14
Rather than being abstract, I would argue the forces/relations perspective helps explain—in a way that the “contingent conjunction of multiple determinations” cannot—why, at this particular moment, a shift has taken us from capitalist normality to global catastrophe. Such a perspective suggests small quantitative changes have reached a qualitative turning point in their interaction and have thus created a multidimensional crisis. The concept of a “contingent conjunction” is more accidental in character and fails to explain as well the coincidence of timing in so many areas at once.
This subtle difference in emphasis can also influence how solutions are framed. Callinicos clearly identifies the revolutionary working-class reconstitution of society as the answer. He describes its function using Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that, although “Marx said that revolutions were the locomotive of world history”, it is “perhaps” rather the case that “revolutions are attempts by the passengers on this train—the human race—to activate the emergency brake”.15 Callinicos’s final chapter is entitled “Pulling the Emergency Cord”.
If the age of catastrophe were only “the contingent conjunction of multiple determinations”—a set of disparate processes—then blocking their operation is logical and sufficient. However, if we foreground the forces/relations dynamic, revolution becomes something more than that: transcendence of the current forces/relations structure to release new potentialities existing trapped within it.
This is not an argument for further developing capitalist industry or relying on some future technological fix for ecological problems—so-called “unicorns” such as carbon capture and storage. Nor is there a reformist road out of geopolitical competition and capitalist economic crisis. Callinicos’s book provides crystal clear proof that such illusions would be fatal. Yet, there is an argument for presenting the danger posed by the existing relations of production as a fetter on current human creativity that must be smashed.
Production should not be conceived only in terms of capitalism’s imperatives towards maximum material output. Yes, the profit motive is what drives production under capitalism, but the productive process is also the act by which humanity sustains its existence. Human production has taken on a wide range of historical forms, each with a distinct set of forces and relations of production. If life is to continue then a new version will need to be established, and there is no reason to suppose that is impossible.
Hopefully, a few brief examples can illuminate some of the content of The New Age of Catastrophe, while showing how giving a greater role to the forces/relations approach could add to the argument. In the book’s “Economic Stagnation” chapter, following Marx’s Capital, Callinicos describes the tendency of the rate of profit to fall—a trend that lies behind contemporary economic crises. This tendency is a result of competition encouraging capitalists to introduce “productivity-increasing innovations”.16 These technological advancements reduce the ratio of “living labour” (the actual work carried out by workers, which Marx views as the source of value) to “dead labour” (past work that is embodied in machinery and infrastructure). Technological improvement represents expansion of the forces of production, but the relations of production (to which the law of value is key) create a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. The relations act negatively on the forces to create periodic economic crisis that slows output.
Callinicos notes that geopolitical competition between capitalist states threatens annihilation of humanity through nuclear war. The destructive scale of armed conflict is dependent on the productive power of society for both its funding and methods. The technology of the wooden plough accompanied the bow and arrow. Early industrial society brought colonial imperialism and the gunboat. In the computer age, trillions of dollars have been spent on modern armies, guided missiles and drones. During the current war in Ukraine, we have seen how the competitive relations of production (which include national economies and their respective states) lead to armed conflict that has a worldwide impact: reduction in supplies of basic goods, global inflation (especially of food prices), and catastrophe for the world’s poorest.
In his chapter on “The Destruction of Nature”, Callinicos shows how capitalism is bringing calamitous ecological crisis, including pandemics and climate chaos. An emergency brake on carbon emissions and encroachment into natural habitats is sorely needed. The story, however, is deeply contradictory.
The “social production of existence” since the end of the 18th century has seen world population rise from 1 billion in 1800 to 8 billion today. 17 In 1800, average life expectancy was 28.3 years. It reached 72.3 years in 2017, although it is now in decline. Though unevenly distributed, these trends held across all continents; statistics for Africa, for example, are following the general pattern.18 Behind both population increase and higher life expectancy is a staggering expansion of output, which raised world gross domestic product from over $1 trillion in 1800 to around $108 trillion today.19
As Callinicos says, this model is no longer viable. Still, while profit-making was the motive behind these advances, they also reflected the toil of the millions of working-class people whose labour built and maintains human society. Advances in life expectancy, the ability to sustain increased population and the resources available to us—mediated through capitalist social relations—have been facilitated by an unparalleled expansion in human collaboration and planning (within firms and countries if not between them), the development and application of science, and improved technique (including education and machinery). Among indigenous communities there remains a knowledge of how agriculture can be practised in harmony with nature, and those who labour by hand and by brain have an expertise that can be harnessed through democratic planning.
This double-sided, contradictory face of social development sets the context for the dilemma we face. Within the totality is the conundrum of a simultaneous dominance and vulnerability of the capitalist system as well as the potential for the working class to overcome its own vulnerabilities and to dominate in the interests of all. We can do more than pull the emergency cord to stop the train. Our future depends on harnessing the innate potential of human labour and reorienting it towards goals that rescue us and the planet (which amounts to the same thing).
None of this minor qualification negates in any way the significance of The New Age of Catastrophe. Perhaps it would be too much to expect a sketching out of this alternative approach in what is already a substantial book. Nonetheless, the book does not stop at insightful analysis. It is very much a guide to action, reflecting how it is not just the various crises that are linked, so also the fights against them.
The implication of Callinicos’s presentation of a totality is that activists need to insist environmental campaigning cannot ultimately succeed unless it is connected to the power of the working class to overthrow capitalism—hence the slogan “System Change not Climate Change!”. The fight to defend living standards cannot win if workers fall for racist divide and rule tactics from the far right, so anti-racism is an element in the industrial fightback. Understanding the nature of contemporary imperialism and confrontations such as the war in Ukraine is essential if we are to stop the workers’ movement from lining up with our rulers’ foreign policies, such as NATO expansion. That sort of collaboration weakens the working class.
The warning given by The New Age of Catastrophe could not be starker, and developments since its publication, such as the horror in Gaza, confirm this. Nonetheless, its message is not one of despair, but rather one of mobilisation. Borrowing the words of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet we can say, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Our answer is this: “To take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them.”
Donny Gluckstein is a trade union activist in the EIS. He is one of the authors of The Labour Party: A Marxist History (Bookmarks, 2019).
1 Callinicos, 2023, p5.
2 Marx and Engels, 1848.
3 Lukács, 2000. A classic account of Lukács’s political and philosophical development and his early contribution to Marxism is available in Löwy, 2017.
4 Callinicos, 2023, pix.
5 Callinicos, 2023, p1.
6 Callinicos, 2023, p2.
7 Callinicos, 2023, p10.
8 Callinicos, 2023, pp7-8.
9 Marx, 1859.
10 Callinicos, 2023, p8.
11 Marx, 1859.
12 Callinicos, 2023, p12.
13 Marx, 1859.
14 Marx and Engels, 1848.
15 Callinicos, 2023, p149.
16 Callinicos, 2023, p62.